How to Gain Muscle: 5 Killer Mistakes You Must Avoid

Written by Jason Ferruggia Topics: Training

You want to know how to gain muscle? Sick of being a skinny maggot who gets air when the wind blows? Then start eliminating these five mistakes and you’ll be on your way.

1) Training Too Often

In order to grow you must provide your body with the optimal stimulus and then back off and allow it time to rest and recover. Without ample rest time you will never grow to your maximal potential. For this reason I recommend that average, busy, drug-free guys don’t do more than three or four big weight-training workouts per week. You can do some easier stuff on the other days, but three or four big days is a good starting point for most people.

2) Training Strictly For the Pump

Far too often I see skinny guys in the gym pumping away 10-15 rep sets with weights lighter than my grandmother would use. Yes, high volume training leads to a great pump but a great pump does not always lead to muscle growth; especially when you’re weak.

You can get a pump by treading water for a few minutes but everyone knows that won’t turn you into a mass monster any time soon. Chasing the pump should only be a small concern in your workout; after you have gotten your more productive heavy lifting out of the way.

At the end of the day you have to get stronger. Everything else pales in comparison.

Once you get strong, after a few years of training properly, you can worry about pump work.

3) Not Cycling Your Training Intensity

Overzealous skinny guys love to work themselves into the ground. They figure the harder they work the quicker the gains will come. The problem is that when you constantly train with balls-to-the-wall intensity you will eventually burn out, you get injured or your immune system goes and you get sick. All of this will obviously slow down the rate at which you gain muscle.

If you want to make long lasting gains you have to back off once in a while and give your body a break. After a period of reduced intensity you can ramp back up again and repeat the cycle. I recommend no more than 8-12 weeks of balls out training followed by a 1-2 week deloading period. If you’re over 35 and/or have been training for a while you may be better off limiting your high intensity training to 6-8 weeks and following it up with a deload.

4) Using the Wrong Exercise Order

One thing that is often overlooked by those interested in gaining muscle is exercise order. You should usually start your workouts with the most neurologically demanding exercise. So if you are doing a clean or any other form of explosive lift or jump this exercise would usually come before squats or chin ups… but not always.

If you are not doing explosive lifts or speed work, the biggest compound exercise should usually come first. Therefore a squat would usually come before a split squat. Also, the heaviest, lowest rep sets should be done early in the workout and the higher rep work should be done at the end.

So basically it goes:

    • Speed work
    • Maximal strength work
    • Pump/ assistance work

There are exceptions to this rule and times when breaking it could actually be quite beneficial but for the most part his is how you should plan your training. When you get more advanced you can get great results by putting your speed work later in the session. I learned this from my friend, NCAA & NFL strength coach, Joe Kenn, many years ago and use with my more advanced guys. Beginners, however should stick with the order listed above.

5) Not Using a Training Journal

If you want to get bigger and stronger you absolutely must record each and every workout you do in some type of notebook or training journal. That gives you a goal and something to beat at your next workout. And the one after that, and the one after that.

There is no way anyone (unless you have a photographic memory) can remember all of the details of every workout they do. So without a record of it you are just guessing and never know if you are doing more or less than the previous workout. And if you want to get bigger and stronger you had better be doing more; be it weight, sets or reps. Progressive overload is the key to getting bigger and stronger.

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6 Responses to How to Gain Muscle: 5 Killer Mistakes You Must Avoid

  1. Lame-R September 9, 2008 at 4:26 pm #

    Absolutely spot on. Unfortunately, I had to learn through trial and error. For those just starting out, heed this advice!

  2. Ryan December 15, 2010 at 3:36 pm #

    Jason. Im boxing and doing some mma, i want to lose fat and build some serious muscle. Should i add in some sprints after i lift, or would it be over kill with my tues,thurs,sat, boxing routine, and should i lift one bodpart per week, with low sets but high weight, and intensity? Im so lost, i dont know whether to follow you MGS, or Sean Naleywanjys Truth about building muscle program?

  3. robert October 6, 2011 at 7:15 pm #

    This is old information that needs to be retold first thing i was told when i went into the gym was do your heavy lifts first 20 years ago, but now i see guys doing stuff all out of order and since i work out at a fitness center and not a gym, there’s no one in there to tell them, because the personal trainers took a 1 month class n are experts, and they don’t know. they’ll do curls first then do back, i think this rule is most important of the five but this is all right on stuff, thanks for the article.

  4. Craig L. October 7, 2011 at 12:50 pm #

    The training journal is something that is extremely important, yet often overlooked. As you point out, the only way to get bigger is to lift heavier, do more reps with the same weight, or both. I like to use my journal as a way to track how long it has been since I have increased the amount of weight I am using for my lifts, and if it has been a few weeks since I have increased my resistance, I will go ahead and add 5 or 10 pounds to make sure my muscles are continually forced to adapt and grow.

    My only criticism with this post is that you neglected to talk about a very important aspect of muscle growth – nutrition. Otherwise, a very solid post.

    I have actually written an in-depth article on muscle building nutrition that I would be happy to share with your followers, but out of respect for you and everything you do, I do not want to link to my site in a comment without your permission. If you would allow me to share my insights on training and eating for gaining muscle, I would be more than happy to provide a link for your visitors. If not, I completely understand.

    Anyway, thanks for the advice. Your instructions are always spot on!

  5. Alex July 14, 2012 at 1:38 pm #

    Good, simple & effective article..
    I liked the way you finished number 4, i have found that the best way, in my case, to blast thru a plateau, although i usually follow the normal order, is to turn things around for a while, for example if i’m stuck on my squat i will begin a cycle where i will do the assistance high rep first as a pre exhaust for the compound but still using the same weight i am stuck with, when i get back to my normal routine, with the compound first, i am stronger and can add more weight to it..
    Keep it up !!

  6. Jonpol Anderson July 2, 2013 at 8:03 am #

    Jason, this is excellent information. If I may add some personal experience here.

    I have been following this theory for some time now. But, I have one case where I don’t follow this guideline. In the case of deltoid work.

    I’m 45 and have mild shoulder issues. I have found if I perform my standing military press first thing (this movement does not aggravate my shoulders) , it not only see’s first light and maximal effort, but it sets the stage for me to bench without shoulder pain. I do 3 x RPT then will move to either bench (dumbbells) or deadlift, depending on the day.

    Spent my youth breaking myself down, now I’m building myself back up.

    Take care and thank you for your passion.